Dr. Madeline Levine, READY OR NOT

Dr. Madeline Levine, READY OR NOT

Zibby Owens: Hi, just a little disclaimer here. I’m so sorry, but for some reason my microphone did not work that well during the recording of this episode with the amazing Madeline Levine, PhD. You should totally listen to every word she has to say. You can still kind of hear my questions, but really the best part is Madeline herself, or Dr. Levine I should say. You can still hear me, but I apologize for the mix up. I’m really, really sorry. I don’t know what I did wrong that day, but don’t punish Dr. Levine for my mistake. Please listen because she has such good advice for all of us, especially right now. Thank you.

I’m here today with Madeline Levine, PhD, who’s a psychologist and the author of the New York Times best-selling books The Price of Privilege, Teach Your Children Well, and most recently, Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World. She has close to forty years of experience as a clinician, consultant, educator, and author. Dr. Levine is a cofounder of Challenge Success, a project at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. A graduate of SUNY Buffalo with a BA in English and an MA in education, Dr. Levine earned her MA and PhD in psychology in California. She currently lives with her husband in San Francisco and is the proud mother of three adult sons and a new grandchild.

Welcome, Dr. Levine. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Dr. Madeline Levine: My pleasure.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World is about? Although, that really did kind of give it away.

Madeline: Whenever anybody asks me that, I say read the title because it’s really about that. I’m interested in children and parenting. I think that times have changed so radically, not that the uncertainty is so great because times are always uncertain, but the velocity of change is incredibly fast. If you have a child, like you do, of those kinds of ages, nobody really knows what the world will look like, and certainly what their jobs will be like. I wanted to take a look at how people behave in situations of uncertainty.

Zibby: It’s so funny. When you were introducing all of the things that we can be uncertain about, I started getting so stressed out reading the book. I was like, oh gosh, I haven’t been worrying enough about these things. These things are also uncertain. Anyway, thank you for giving concrete solutions and coping mechanisms. This is your third book. Why this book next? Why did you want to write this book?

Madeline: The reason’s really important, so thanks for asking that question. My interest is in kids’ mental health and teenagers’ mental health. I had written two really popular books. Price of Privilege sort of spawned a movement. There’s a whole bunch of us running around the country talking about, kids need more sleep and less pressure and less homework and more downtime. The reality is, while it helped individual families and kids, it wasn’t a tidal wave of change. If anything, rates of impairment have gone up. Rates of anxiety have gone up. Rate of self-mutilation have gone up. Rates of depression have gone up. That would be pretty depressing to think that you spent twelve years trying to fix something and it’s only gotten worse. Instead of getting depressed, I actually got really curious.

There are really smart people researching this, and the needle doesn’t move. Why not? I decided to not look at my usual suspects, which are psychologists and educators, and see if I could find people who had been in situations of great change and what they had to say and whether or not there was something about the environment that made us not think well. Parents are always saying to me, “You’re right. I should do it, but I just can’t,” or “I can’t swim upstream,” or “They can sleep when they graduate,” or these kinds of things. When I first started thirteen years ago, there was pushback against this, like, “You’re trying to lower the bar,” which I wasn’t. I’m Jewish. My husband’s a surgeon. It’s sort of like we’re not known for lowering the bar. It was really to get kids to work at their best. I really wanted to know why the needle wasn’t moving at all. What about the way our brain processes uncertainty makes it harder to make good decisions?

Zibby: What did you find? Why is the needle not moving?

Madeline: I found a few things. One is under uncertain conditions we have very conservative brains. We tend to look to the past for solutions when we should be looking to the future. I’ll often hear something like, “Well, Brown worked for me, so my kid has to get straight A’s. I don’t care if they sleep that much. They have to take APs to get into Brown because that’s your ticket.” Maybe. Just as likely, maybe not. We just don’t know. There’s tremendous consensus about the kinds of skills kids will need going forward, but no consensus about what they’ll be doing, none. In talking to AI people or futurists or things like that, it goes from, “You’ll probably have a self-driving car in twenty years. Maybe your refrigerator will tell you if you’re short on milk,” to “Your brain will be fused with your computer. You will be a cyborg.” There’s zero consensus on that. If you really don’t know what your kids are going to do, I think that’s really tough for parents. I think there are three reasons why — well, there are many reasons why the needle didn’t move. The three that I see is there’s tremendous uncertainty and anxiety. Anxiety’s the number-one diagnosis for kids and their parents, one in three. There is social media which I think leads to a kind of compulsive comparison, comparing. I cracked up. In The Times, they had that article about — I wish I could remember the title exactly. It’s like “I feel bad about my body after watching J. Lo.” That was written by a grown woman. She’s complaining about it. What if you’re a thirteen-year-old kid with pimples?

Zibby: Wasn’t it Jennifer Weiner who wrote it?

Madeline: Yes, it was.

Zibby: She was also on this podcast. Shameless plug. Okay, keep going.

Madeline: So, pressure; uncertainty; social media, which I think has really raised the anxiety because of constant comparison; and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, which is just becoming bigger and bigger, and so the constant exposure to school massacres, to the horrible things that are going on. I tell people to get on YouTube and take a look at a preschool drill, active-shooter drill. You see these little kids with people in the hallway. It’s horrifying. There’s some research that says if you’re exposed to negative imagery, that you will perceive the world as more dangerous than it actually is. Parents who worry about sending their kids out on a bike, they really shouldn’t be worried because violent crime is actually down. The constant exposure to these horrendous massacres in this country I think makes people very fearful.

Zibby: Yeah, for sure. Today, I was reading the paper dropping off my kids in the car on the way there. I was like, you know what? I just don’t think I can read about this coronavirus anymore. I think I’m just going to not worry about it and wait until — it’s too much. It’s too much to keep all that worry inside and then go out and wish your kid a good day at school. It’s a lot.

Madeline: Right. The other thing about it that’s worrisome about it is that when we’re that overwhelmed, I think we throw our hands up, exactly what you said, and say, hey, I’m just going back to my house and my kids. Leave me alone. We’re at a political moment in this country where we can’t afford passivity. I think that constant exposure does — we end up being like trauma victims. It’s like, did you hear about the massacre? I don’t want to hear about it. Did you hear about…? I don’t want to hear about it. I think that leads to kind of passivity. When my kids were young and they sprayed chemicals on the apples in the local supermarket, we all went and picketed. We didn’t feel helpless. We felt like we could affect some change, and we did. They stopped spraying Alar on the apples. I think now people are starting to feel like it’s out of control and there’s nothing they can do. That’s a bad feeling because helplessness leads to depression and anxiety.

Zibby: You had that whole sections on learned helplessness.

Madeline: Learned helplessness, right.

Zibby: To go back to my psychology , you cited research that confirmed that people prefer to make choices based on known variables even though making a slightly less certain choice could potentially lead to greater reward, which is what you were basically just talking about. I wondered if this is why I book vacations to the same places over and over even though there’s so many parts of the world to see and things to do and yet this is a like safe choice. Is this one of the hacks that parents tend to use?

Madeline: Look, you were talking about what it’s like to have four kids. I had three kids. I think we overestimate our bandwidth. If you’re handling four kids and a career and friendships and being a wife and being all these kinds of things, if you can simplify parts of your life — it was always a discussion. My husband always wanted to go someplace else. I always wanted to go to the same place because it was easier for me. You have to remember that the brain sees unpredictability as a threat because it has to expend more energy figuring out what to do. I think we reserve bandwidth by doing what we know will be successful.

Zibby: This actually just resolved a long-running conflict with my husband, so thank you.

Madeline: You can tell him I said so.

Zibby: Another thing I tend to do — I don’t know if anybody else does this. At the last minute, I realize, wait, I don’t want to go to the same place. It’s imminent, and now I have the bandwidth, I guess, to focus on it.

Madeline: That’s right. It doesn’t feel as threatening to you anymore. If you have to plan for six months, it is threatening because it’s going to take a lot of time. If you’re walking out the door and you say, “Hey, I’d rather go there,” no time for it to be a threat.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you so much. That was great.

Madeline: What’s your husband’s name?

Zibby: His name is Kyle.

Madeline: Sorry, Kyle.

Zibby: You have a quote from sports that you talked about a bunch in the book called “The most important play is always the next one.” How does this relate to parenting?

Madeline: I think we get stuck in what’s happening in the moment being incredibly important. I can remember when my kids were young, every decision seemed like a big decision, select soccer or travelling soccer or local soccer or whatever. We get stuck in that in a way that our kids don’t, necessarily. We’d go to a soccer game. There’d be a bad call. The kids would lose. Everybody would be really mad. Then we’d go out for pizza, and the kids were fine. The parents were still sitting at a table kind of bitching about the bad call. To the extent to which we can let go of things and stay ahead, it’s helpful. Once you’ve learned what you needed to learn from something that didn’t work, it’s time just to move on. My favorite line, actually, is from Carol Dweck who is at Stanford who’s known for mindset. She uses the word yet. A kid will say, “I’ll never be good at that.” She says, “Not yet.” A kid will say, “I just can’t get calculus,” or whatever it is. “Well, not yet.” I think that’s a good tonic for this idea that you get things quickly because you don’t.

As an aside, I don’t like the word passion. Everybody’s talking about, what’s your kid’s passion? The kid is like six. They’re not supposed to have a passion yet. Passions take a lot work. I don’t think we acknowledge that, a lot of work, a lot of failure, a lot of falling down and getting up again. I think you keep your eye forward. When I was your age, I tended to see mothering as a snapshot, like, this kid’s doing really well, but this kid’s not doing as well. Now it’s a movie. All those things that seemed so important at the time really pale next to the fact that you want to turn out kids that are good people, who have some sense of purpose, and who have good relationships. Whether or not they got a B or a C in their fifth-grade social studies becomes really irrelevant.

Zibby: Your father sadly passed away when you were younger. Your mother had a very old-fashioned parenting style telling you things like, “You should know your place. Don’t have such big eyes,” telling you even, “Don’t be so smart around the boys.” Things are completely different. Yet you give your parents all this credit for your ability to synthesize information and all these other interpersonal skills which you ended up using as a psychologist. What do you think the effect of your parents has really been on you?

Madeline: That was a really interesting question. Losing my father was a terrible thing to have happened. I was very close with him.

Zibby: How old were you?

Madeline: I was seventeen when he died. I was just going to college and sort of launching. It’s an important time for a girl to have a father around. I ended up, actually, with a pretty severe anxiety disorder after that. I had panic attacks for many years which makes me an expert on anxiety both by training and experience, and how debilitating it can be. My mother — it’s interesting. You said old-fashioned. At that time…

Zibby: At the time, it was au courant.

Madeline: Right, at that time. The impact that it had on me — they had incredible integrity. It’s not that they helped me to learn to synthesize. They listened to me. I think life is about chance as much as anything else. Chance favors the prepared mind. My parents were smart. My mom went to college. My father never did. They were really curious. I was really curious. I’d come to the table with whatever it was, marijuana laws or gay marriage, even back then, or political stuff. My very first conversation that I remember was — I must have been really young. Adlai Stevenson was running for president. Nobody liked him because he was an egghead. That was the word they used for him. That was weeks of conversation about what was wrong with being smart. In the process of their receptivity to the outside world, I think I learned to translate things, especially as I got a little older, into the language of just everyday sitting around the table. I think that’s carried through in my writing. I’m not an academic writer. I kind of write the way I talked around the table. That was helpful. The biggest thing was their sense of tikkun olam or healing the world. I saw your mezuzah. Whenever there was an accident — my dad was a cop — he’d be outside in a flash helping people. We used to have a box in the kitchen. At the end of the day, you’d put whatever pennies and nickels and dimes you had. Then you decided on a project together for helping other people. That was incredibly important.

My mother’s stuff — what my mother actually used to say to me is, “Don’t beat the boys.” I was a very good ping-pong player. I could beat any of the boys. She’d come down to the basement. “Madeline, you’re beating the boys again.” I think she thought that would lessen my chances of getting married. That was the deal back then. Did it have a lasting impact? Yes. Two of my best friends now are the next generation after me, both physicians. They won’t even go to a woman entrepreneur or woman doctor thing because they don’t think that way anymore. They’ll go to an entrepreneurial thing or a physician thing, but not specific to being a woman. In some ways, it encouraged adaptability because what did I do when that was the way people thought? I worked at the naval hospital. They were getting a new head of psychiatry. It was a woman. All the secretaries hid her mail because they didn’t want to work under — it was such a different time. My solution back then was to go under the wing of somebody. I always found somebody who was willing to take me under their wing.

I just had a funny experience. It may or may not relate. I went to a reading at Book Passage, my local independent bookstore. It was Robert Hass who has been the Poet Laurate of the United States twice. He was my teacher at Buffalo. I’m speaking there ten days after he’s speaking there. I’m like, “Bob, do you remember me?” “Yeah, I do.” He was like, “Aren’t you speaking here?” I said yes. He said, “Madeline, what took you so long?” which was sweet because college was the beginning of understanding that there were people who didn’t feel you had to hide your light or be subservient. It was so — you’re giving me memories. When I did my PhD, you have a PhD meeting at the end with your committee. These four men walked into my house. The first thing they said is, “Could we have coffee?” I was not a coffee drinker then. I didn’t know how to make a cup of coffee. They were appalled. So, things change.

Zibby: Now you could just have a Keurig like me and nobody would have to know the difference. Cheers.

Madeline: Right, and now we have Starbucks, so you don’t have to make — you have to understand in way that back then it wasn’t like, oh, my god, I’m being screwed by this. At Buffalo, I was a very good student. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, blah, blah, blah. I went to my counselor and said, “I’m interested in medicine.” They sent me to the school of nursing. Didn’t want to be a nurse, but didn’t have any thoughts of, why did they do that? That came later in the women’s movement and all the things that have changed, opportunity, and had done, of course, by the way.

Zibby: The one thing from your life also that I found so interesting, and something as parents probably we would all like to replicate with our own children, is you touched on this adaptability, but to follow the squiggly path. Not every job opportunity is the right one. You say in the book you didn’t beat yourself up about it. You realized, okay, that’s not the thing for me. Moving on. I don’t think that’s the way a lot of people respond to things like that. It can seem like the end of the world, like, oh no, I tried this and it didn’t work. How do you build up that resilience? What do you think they did to you? Did you do that to your kids? What should parents everywhere do? How does that make us ready to adapt in this rapidly changing world?

Madeline: I think people have misplaced ideas about how kids become confident. To be able to say, “This job is not for me. I’m going to do something else,” is really about confidence that you’ll be able to do something else and you’ll get another job. There was this long period of time about, how do you build self-esteem? which was nuts. It was like every kid gets a trophy. I was once — this is . I was once in a preschool classroom. Mom comes in with this little kid. He’s walking to hang up his coat. Mom is right behind him clapping. “Good job. Good job, honey.” Guess what? He’s four. He’s supposed to know how to walk across and hang up his coat. That is not how you build confidence in a kid. I think that whole self-esteem movement did a lot of damage. The research is that it did a lot of damage and it did not build self-esteem. I think the way you build self-esteem is to let kids learn how to master things without breathing down their neck to see how they’re doing.

I’m back to Carol Dweck for some reason. She has this marvelous experiment where she gives four-year-olds puzzles. The first set of puzzles are easy. They all do it. The next set of puzzles, she tells half the group, “You’re so smart. You’re going to get this.” The other group, she tells nothing to. If you watch it, for the first couple minutes the group she told is so smart looks really good, but that fades very quickly. The group that didn’t have that extra burden of pleasing the adult and looking so smart, they way outstripped the kids who were told how smart they were. A real positive in the way parents used to parent, they just weren’t that involved. You learned to pick yourself up. You learned that it wasn’t the end of the world. I never hear parents say something like, “You can handle that.” I think that’s the most important thing a parent can say, even as opposed to, “How did that feel?” or “How do you feel about that?” which is another — “Tell me more.” What does a psychologist say? “Tell me more,” but just letting kids find their way.

Zibby: I say that all day to everybody, by the way, to every guest who comes in here. I’m like, “Tell me more.” Now I have to find a new one.

Madeline: People are always like, “Can you read my mind? What does a psychologist do?” No, I’m just incredibly curious. Tell me more. I think that opens up the conversation. The fact that I knew my parents were proud of me but they left me to my own devices — I was fortunate I was good at some things and not good at some things. It was all the same. I didn’t feel any of my value rested on the fact that I was an A-student in English and probably a C-student in math. I was a beloved kid regardless of my grades.

Zibby: You have a section in your book called “For moms, it’s harder to find fun.” Thank you for that section. What can moms do about that?

Madeline: I’m aware that being a mother’s a trajectory and that when you have young children — my son has a baby. Those first few months, I have nothing to say. It’s exhausting. You do the best you can. You’re sleep deprived. You’re not going to have a lot of fun, other than the miracle of having a child. I think that intensive parenting, this kind of intensive parenting like all your money and all your time and all your energy going into your kids, is misplaced on a whole bunch of levels. It’s misplaced for the kid. It’s a burden for a child to feel that their performance is what dictates their mother’s state of mind. It shortchanges ourselves terribly. In Ready or Not, I talk about how in retrospect — having three boys, it meant every weekend I was at some soccer game or lacrosse game or whatever. It’s not that I didn’t think I shouldn’t be at them, because there was a sense of community when there’s not a lot of community left. For sure if I had it to do over again, I’d go to one a month or two a month instead of every weekend and spend some of that time with a girlfriend or reading a book, breakfast with my husband, lying in bed, doing something because we can’t parent that intensely. Four kids, that’s a huge number of children to keep track of. I think it would help for mothers to start thinking about looking at what their day is like.

We do this at Challenge Success all the time. We make twenty-fours hours. You put in your sleep; and for kids, going to school and homework and sports and whatever. The kid looks at it and sees he’s working thirty-four hours a day, but there’s only twenty-four hours in the day. I think that’s a good exercise for moms. I’m realistic. It’s not like you’re going to have hundreds of things. I worked part time when my kids were growing up. I think that was an enormous help for them. You find something that interests you. I just gave a talk. A woman came over to me and said, “I just want you to know you changed my life with that stuff about moms. I heard you twelve years ago. Ten of us went out and formed a tennis team. We still play.” It’s years later. Understanding that carving out time for yourself is critical for you, but it’s also critical monitoring for your child that there are other things in the world besides just them. I think the world’s so broken right now that it’s really important for kids to see that there’s some responsibility to something other than accomplishments and performance and their GPA.

Zibby: I totally agree. When you’re writing, where and when — how do you write these books? Do you do all the research and then you sit down and carve out time? What was your process like writing this book, for instance?

Madeline: Eighty percent of the book is lying in bed thinking. My husband will get up for work in the morning. He’ll say, “I have to go to work. What are you doing?” I’m like, “I’m working.” I’m not sure he ever totally bought that, but that’s true. It’s absolutely true. The vast majority of writing a book for me — because I like writing, the vast majority of it is, what do I have to say? What’s missing? How do these things fit together? I think what I’m good at is sort of a natural tone but also weaving things together. I don’t think I’m the most creative person by a longshot, or the smartest or the best, none of that. My real interest is how do these pieces fit together? This wasn’t working. Why not? It goes right back to your point. It wasn’t like, “This isn’t working. Oh, shoot, I’ve wasted twelve years.”

I think maintaining your curiosity in the world is incredibly important. I’d say eighty percent of writing a book for me is figuring out what I want to say, how things fit together. Frankly, part of it is finding something I don’t know anything about. When I handed in the chapter on the brain, Gail, my editor, said to me, “I’m really glad you took neuropsychology, but your audience didn’t.” And so that had to be trimmed back. After writing about kids so long, it was like, what am I missing? What’s interesting that I can learn? Then I have a little office on a garden. I never go into the garden, but I can see it. I’m not a disciplined — my son writes also, my middle son. He’s up every morning. He’s at the — nah. I learned having all those kids, all my writing took place ten and one. I wrote Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well and two books before that between ten and one in the morning because it was quiet.

Zibby: Quiet is nice. Do you know what your next big idea is yet for the next book? Are you still considering?

Madeline: I’m not sure. If I do write again, I will write about this stage of life. I really feel like I’ve said a lot of what I have to say about kids, unless things change radically. It strikes me that me and many other people have written about child development. There’s dozens of us who are interested in child development. There’s a whole literature on child development, but there’s not on parent development. There are no books that are, “This is the trajectory of parent development.” We change over the period of time that we raise our children. We change radically. To think that the person you are now is going to be the person you’re going to be in twenty years is foolish. You won’t be. Nobody’s looked at that. Again, it’s the same kind of — if I get interested, which I obviously am because I’m talking about it, it would be about the lack of information about what you’re going to face and what kinds of resources you’re going to need. That’s probably what I’d do.

Zibby: You should structure it around the scene in this book with your son when you were so sad and you said to him, “I don’t have kids anymore.” He said —

Madeline: — No, “I don’t have children.”

Zibby: “I don’t have children anymore.” He said, “You always have kids.” Let me just find this quote before I mess it up. Wait, where was it? Well, it was something like that.

Madeline: I said my children are grown.

Zibby: He told you, “You don’t have children anymore, Mom. You’ll always have kids,” which is so sweet.

Madeline: It’s my favorite. That’s my favorite line in the book.

Zibby: Me too. That was amazing.

Madeline: That or “Go play,” when he’s telling me — instead of sitting in the stands and being bored watching my eight hundredth soccer game, he says, “Why don’t you guys go play?” which is why I say it’s a burden for the kid to see you week after week sitting up there. You work like a dog all week long. Then you watch children kick a ball. Those are my two favorite lines. It is about that. It is about that change in your relationship with your kids. I have two daughter-in-laws all of a sudden. That’s a whole new thing. I have a granddaughter. That’s a whole new thing. Right now, I’m sort of realizing that as much as I love them, they’re not my children. My children know me. They know how I talk about things. I know them. Now I have to adapt to new people, new configurations, just my husband and myself in the house. What’s that going to be like? They’re always your kids, but your relationship changes. You want it to change, but it’s a mixed bag, Zibby.

I had an interesting experience. I had written a piece called “Losing Loren” when my oldest son went away to college. I never showed it to anybody. It was highly personal. It was a difficult time for me for my kid to go away. Going away to college was when I lost my dad. Anyway, it was a psychologically demanding time. I wrote this piece about how it’s hard to let your kid go away. Unfortunately, the magazine that printed it used the title “Heartbroken.” Somebody wrote to me, basically, “What’s the matter with you? You should be delighted.” It’s not that simple. It’s never that simple. We have incredibly complex feelings towards our children. I would like more acknowledgment of that fact. I had wanted to write a book somewhere along the line here about mom’s ambivalence. Nobody wanted to hear about that because moms are supposed to only be thrilled and love their kids twenty-four seven. I’ve seen moms for thirty-five years. That’s just not the way it is.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Madeline: Yes. I do, actually. That is to get an agent, to write. Don’t try and impress anybody. When you write — my experience, I can only go back to my experience of writing a book. It’s a conversation with myself. I have trouble reading books where people are trying to show me how smart they are. It’s kind of the way I’ll occasionally feel reading The New Yorker where there are words I don’t know and I have to go to the dictionary. It’s like, I get it, you’re smarter than I am. I don’t think that’s the way to write a book. When people find out I write, they say, “Oh, I have a book I want to write.” Beware of what you wish for. That took four years of my time in addition to having a practice, in addition to having two jobs, in addition to having a family. I think you have to really like to write. You’d be fine if it was for yourself, and you’d be fine if it was a big seller.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for all your amazing advice and all your stories. Thanks.

Madeline: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Dr. Madeline Levine, READY OR NOT